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Another side effect from war in Gaza? Animals starving in its besieged zoos

Gaza Strip | 2018 03 | medical check and assessment at Rafah Zoo
DAH
/
Four Paws
Gaza Strip | 2018 03 | medical check and assessment at Rafah Zoo

Israel's war with Hamas has created a humanitarian crisis for the millions of Palestinians stuck in Gaza. Most of the population has been displaced by Israel's intensifying military campaign – with the United Nations saying nowhere is safe in Gaza as Israeli airstrikes have hit every part of the besieged strip. Israeli bombardment has even destroyed Gaza zoos, killing many of the animals there. The animals that survived are starving alongside their human caretakers.

TheUnited Nations reports that 90% of the population of Gaza regularly goes a whole day without food. Other basic necessities like clean water, fuel, medicine and medical supplies are all scarce. In the face of all this, some zookeepers in Gaza say animals are dying of starvation.

In retaliation for Hamas' Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,200 people, according to Israel, entire neighborhoods have been leveled and the war has killed more than 27,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials.

Veterinarian Dr. Amir Khalil of Four Paws, an organization dedicated to saving animals from war zones, is trying to coordinate a rescue mission from some of Gaza's remaining zoos. He rescued and treated animals during previous conflicts in Gaza and knows the dire conditions the animals were living in even before the war. He contacted the various parties involved, including the Israeli army, Palestine Authority, and locals in Gaza, to try and facilitate.

As the war in Gaza escalates, hopes for his mission dwindle. While seemingly secondary in the shadow of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Khalil spoke with Morning Edition about the importance of saving any innocent life from the horrors of war. "I think it is the wrong time to say whom to save and whom not to save," said Khalil "Everyone has his function to do. I think if I'm able to help one creature, it's enough for me."

Gaza Strip | March 2018 | medical check and assessment at Rafah Zoo
DAH / Four Paws
/
Four Paws
Gaza Strip | March 2018 | medical check and assessment at Rafah Zoo

The situation in Gaza presents a unique set of challenges and dangers. Khalil describes the need for "intelligence work" before even embarking on the rescue.

"We are prepared for the unexpected ... but the most important thing is the safety and the security for the team," said . Khalil. "So we cannot enter without coordination with all involved stakeholders... So it's like a military operation, in fact."

Drawing from his experience in previous rescue missions, Khalil paints a vivid picture of the complexities of navigating through a war-torn landscape; avoiding snipers, dealing with food shortages, and checkpoint delays are part of the considerations of these missions.

"You need to be aware about (having) enough food with you for the animal because you don't know how long it will take," Khalil explained.

Gaza Strip, Rafah | April 2019 | FOUR PAWS rescued 47 animals from Rafah Zoo in Gaza Strip.
/ Four Paws
/
Four Paws
Gaza Strip, Rafah | April 2019 | FOUR PAWS rescued 47 animals from Rafah Zoo in Gaza Strip.

The animals in question include lions, hyenas, crocodiles and escaped baboons from the three Gaza zoos identified by Four Paws. Khalil highlights the troubled history of these animals, many of which were smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels from Egypt.

More than 16 years of blocked commercial trade in Gaza by Israel and Egypt resulted in tunnel smuggling systems to fill the gaps, not just for contraband, but for everyday goods and the more unusual cargo of exotic animals. One documented case includes lion cubs purchased in 2008 from Egypt for $3,000 each. The smugglers drugged and transported the lion cubs through one of the many tunnels and brought them into one of Gaza's ill-equipped facilities.

Gaza Strip | March 2018 | medical check and assessment at Rafah Zoo
DAH / Four Paws
/
Four Paws
Gaza Strip | March 2018 | medical check and assessment at Rafah Zoo

"The people in Gaza deserve to have wild animals and deserve to have a proper place where they can see the animals, but not really a prison because the majority of the animals were kept in poor condition due to the political situation there and the economic situation," Khalil said. "But if Gaza should in the future get a proper condition, I think 100% everyone will assist the people there to live, to see wildlife, but also under international standards."

Khalil believes saving animals can serve as a beacon of hope. He tells a story of a previous mission to Gaza, in 2016, where he witnessed opposing forces laying down their weapons to allow animals to pass.

"I think to risk a life for such a mission is a candle in the dark to stop the war," he said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Mohamad ElBardicy
Mohamad ElBardicy is an editor on Morning Edition and the UpFirst podcast. Before joining NPR in 2019, his career focused on international news with Al-Jazeera, CNN, Eurovision and other outlets during his 15 years in journalism. He's produced, edited and reported stories from around the world. ElBardicy's field work during 2011's Arab Spring helped shape his mission to bring global views and voices to American audiences. He is an American-Egyptian who speaks Arabic fluently and, when he's not being a news junky, you can find him practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.